|Lucky Sibiya was born in Vryheid in Natal in 1942. His father was a descendant of Chief Bambatha, but despite this noble lineage, Sibiya’s family were poor as Sibiya’s father had nine mouths to feed.
Sibiya was a born artist and never received formal training in the field of art. Instead, his introduction to art came through an unusual experience. Sibiya’s father was a sangoma (witchdoctor). As a child, Sibiya spent most of his time watching his father performing rituals, and throwing bones on the floor – essential to the consultation. It was the shape of the bones and their patterns and not the rituals per se that fascinated the young Sibiya. The bones left him thinking about the nature of artwork that could emerge from such items. Such traditional images would later influence his works.
His passion to become an artists was tempered as his parents thought it a priority for him to receive formal education first rather than chasing a talent that might bear no fruit. Under apartheid, as today, parents saw education as a priority for their children to enable them to earn a living. And with the young Sibiya knowing little about art at that time, his parents wanted the best for their son.
Sibiya’s family later moved to Johannesburg where his father had secured a job. But when Sophiatown, which was at the heart of the community, was declared a black spot in the 1950s, Sibiya’s family was forced to relocate again to Soweto.
This urban life was not well received by Sibiya who preferred the freedom of a rural existence. Years later (1993) when he had long become an established artist, he commented on his life back in Natal. Expressing his love for rocks and stones and the earth, he said he particularly loves their colours - reds and browns-and the shape and texture of erosion.
Sibiya’s formal schooling started at St. Peter’s Seminary at Hammanskraal, just outside Pretoria, where he spent seven full years at the schoolvii but returned immediately to his art on completion.
Sibiya’s first experience as an artist was carving decorative tribal forms on calabashes with a penknife. But he soon began integrating 20th century themes, symbolized by wheels, gears and the machine age. When Sibiya later met Dumile Feni, a well known artist, Feni introduced Sibiya to Bill Anslie who in turn recommended him to Cecil Skotnes.
Understanding that some white galleries considered receiving black artists, he arrived at the Polly Street Art Centre which was run by Skotnes. Sibiya brought with him some of his decorated calabashes to show to Skotnes, who recognised they were unique, if not out of this world. Wasting no time, Sibiya was on board and under Skotnes’s watchful eye, Sibiya transferred his technique of engraving images onto wooden panels and started colouring them by rubbing pigment into the surface. In this, Sibiya moved from decorative design to more conceptually abstract compositions.
Sibiya began to focus more on carving than engraving, applying oils and powders with great success on carved panels. Later on he did the same by painting on paper and canvases, selecting themes from Zulu methodology and traditions. He soon learned this new medium and went on to exhibit his work successfully at shows (1971-76). He was soon depicting abstract symbols using steel, cloth, leather and rusted metal to perfect his work.
In the late 1970s Sibiya was fascinated by Welcome Msomi’s play on Macbeth (Umabatha), which had been adapted to fit the 19th century Zulu history, covering the story of King Shaka and King Dingane. Sibiya produced 15 colour woodcuts based on the play and of the same name. Through Umabatha, Sibiya received instant international fame and traveled across the world promoting his work.
Sibiya’s financial breakthrough came in the 1980s when he established relations with the Everard Read Gallery, in Johannesburg. Criticized for merely producing work for financial gain, instead of the love of the art, it must be remembered that being black and working as an artist during the apartheid era was not easy. Sibiya, like others before and after him had family pressures and demands.
Sibiya’s work was often purchased by parastatals and corporations in South Africa, but were also taken up internationally. In the last years of his life, Sibiya lived in Hammanskraal, Pretoria. It was while Sibiya was preparing to mount a big exhibition at Everard Read Gallery in 1999 that he was involved in a fatal car accident in Pretoria. However, despite his untimely death, Sibiya had left an indelible mark in the world of art.
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